* * *
It was a familiar voice on the other end of the phone.. One that I had heard over coffee or lunch for many years, but missed in the past 7 years.. “How have you been? I have a layover in Atlanta on the 9th, for a couple of hours. I am flying to Rwanda, and have to take the flight to Paris from Atlanta.” .. and again, “Are you sure? It will be 11pm before I get there. Thanks, I am looking forward to it too!” Louis-Marie Ntare was that kind of a guy, he rarely called, but when he did, he did so because he genuinely and fondly thought of you at that moment.. And he spoke in specifics..
Over the next two days two and half days before I was scheduled to meet him, I thought of him a lot..
I remember the day I had first met him while working in AT&T, then Bell South.. At 6’2″, he was burly and spoke with a thick French accent. At first glance, it was easy to think of him as not having a heart, let alone any human or soft feelings.. He was only that way by appearance, dark complexion, a close buzz cut to cover his Afro roots.. But deep inside his heart, there was a gold mine for anyone to discover. He had taught me the art of living, and the meaning of humility and gratefulness for life for ever single day I live.
He was truly a world citizen, because he would speak about so many things.. How the taste for black coffee grew on him while living with a Japanese room mate, how he had given shelter to a German soldier – a complete stranger, when conflict broke out at the Berlin wall during his undergrad studies in Germany and how he struggled with learning German while reading concrete, building and mixture material text books at college, and how to get rich by renting 4 unit homes to illegal Mexican immigrants who cannot afford to buy homes.. Just about everything!
But come Monday, he would lovingly bitch about his wife and daughter about the hair chemical treatment for both of them that cost him 400 bucks versus the 30 that he and his son would spend for their hair upkeep.. :) Why were women so complicated he would ask, while coding and solving some of the most complicated Database design issues we had at our company..
Over the years, our family had the fortune of meeting up with theirs.. We had visited one Saturday for drinks and I was pleasantly shocked to step into his Million dollar home – a far cry from his modest bungalow in Rwanda which he shared with his mother, 2 step mothers, 3 sisters and 13 step brothers and sisters..
He had met his future wife while hanging out on the streets after school.. But soon after, he would leave for a college in the next town under heavy recommendation at the local Mayor’s office where his father had a lot of ties – after one of Louis-Marie’s stepmother and brother-in-law were slaughtered in front of his eyes in his childhood home. In any case, the alternative would have been studying 5th grade for the 6th time, because there was no school for anyone once they graduated from their elementary school..
He had seen his cousins and step brothers chase Westerners and their open top jeeps with bare feet to collect the grenades thrown at them as a lure and sell them in the black market for a few drugs and ‘dollars’.. And if they were willing to swing a weapon or two, there was respect that would come with money.. How this little boy defied odds to break the vicious cycle and come so far along was always genuinely intriguing..
He had traveled to Germany on a scholarship in the spring of 1994.. And one night and one day would soon change his life forever.. 1 million people lost their lives, and he would never see the one man that mattered the most.. His father.. No one told him what had become of him, and even if they knew, they would not come forward with the story.. It was Rwanda, and not Ethiopia which has a matriarchal society and so without his father, the family almost but perished.. The girl he had fallen in love with was still in Rwanda, but with a lot of help from well-wishers, friends and a dozen strangers, she is secretly shipped off to Germany, where they wed in the living room of a German college professor.. He would tell us that it was humbling for being the one that survived it all.. That evening my husband and I were thrilled to hear such a lovely romantic story, fit for an epic movie!
But soon afterward, one day, he announced that they were moving out of Atlanta, to a home he owned in Texas.. He had cried like a baby when he lost his 18 year old daughter to a congenital heart disease.. He had spent 250,000$ out of his own money and loans to treat her, stayed in and out of the hospital for 100 days never leaving her side – It had surfaced soon after he was laid off and was on ‘Cobra’ – An insurance policy which has a well-fitting name for its ’cause’.. And so they had to move away from the memories and us..
In 6 months, he had called.. “I will tell you a joke, I was trying to cheer up Tanja, so I went to the Mercedes dealership in my tracks and baseball cap Saturday morning, and they escorted me out because they mistook me for a homeless person.. I had 70,000 cash in my pockets, something I made after selling my condos in Destin.. Of course, I walked next door, and got her a Lexus.. Too bad somebody lost a heavy commission for being an asshole!” I specifically remembered that conversation because he sounded witty and did not sound low from the loss 6 months prior..
“Merci beaucoup, Rachana. It means a lot that you came. I know it must have been a struggle taking care of your business for the day, then driving in Atlanta traffic, all for spending a couple of hours with me..”
“Louis-Marie, you know it is always a pleasure! Why Rwanda, and why now?” He had told me in the 20 years that he had left Rwanda, he had never traveled back with his wife or kids as a family. It was a risk, a threat to his family and the few remaining ones living in the country. But he was not to resist temptations to visit, he wanted to see if the nieces and nephews and cousins he was supporting were growing up to be fine citizens or not.
“Gaines understands the atrocities that were committed on the Tutsis.” He said, “But he is there only to repay me, he says. He senses my restlessness and feels the need to do something to turn the country around.. So, he joined the Marine Corps in rebuilding the country – Universities, Government buildings and services, Airport, Food and Health, Education etc, he has been an active part.. I see him on the internet through Skype, but it has been 8 long months and it is just not enough.. I am going to see him for myself and tell him how proud I am.”
It was not surprising to see how far his boy would go to prove to his father how he genuinely appreciated and cared for his happiness. After all, Louis-Marie and Tanja had just lost their first love child and their only remaining boy was going to do something about it.. To fill the hole in their hearts..
A look at my watch told me two hours felt like 2 minutes.. And my eyes were moist.. I resisted my temptations to cry and give him a sad hug, because there was nothing to cry about.. It was an exceptional story of courage that I was listening to!!
“Are you wearing skirts now?? You don’t want anyone to see your back in your pants..?!”
“Ha ha.. Louis, at 47, I don’t need anyone to stare at my behind, right?! Besides, no one seems to care anyway!”
“Scheisse, I would love to disagree..”
I left the airport feeling heavy, amazed at all the things that define a Common man and the Dictator: Money, Pride and Resilience..
Tribute and Dedication: This piece is close to my heart, as it is semi-autobiographical, but the story line is pure fiction. It is a tribute to a person in my life, who has been a great influence on me. His name, profession, his location are not part of the story to fiercely protect his identity.
What the media tells us:
The US State Department’s Senior Advisor for Innovation, Alec Ross, held up Rwanda as an example of a success story — a country trying to overcome ethnic hatred through economic growth and prosperity. “President Kagame, I think, is taking a fascinating approach to building a 21st century Rwanda. It’s a very small country. It’s landlocked. It doesn’t have the natural resources of its neighbors. So what President Kagame wants to do is to build a knowledge-based economy.”
Paul Kagame recently came into power for the 2nd time for the next 7 year period: Labeled a staunch economic reformer by Western governments, but also called a ruthless dictator by his opponents and by human rights groups, Mr. Kagame is widely expected to win by a landslide, at least in part because several of his opponents have been forbidden from participating and others have been killed in what rights groups and analysts suspect were assassinations.
Organization of African Unity, 2000:
A small number of major players could directly have prevented, halted or reduced the slaughter of Rwandans (The 1994 Genocide)
Exercise your right to be informed.